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the Gekko Files: Previewing Oregon Ducks Football in 2018

It’s going to be all about the defense as new coach Mario Cristobal looks to put the Ducks back into the top 25

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon previews are always fun exercises for the staff here at the Gekko Files. Think about all of the history that we get to reference this time of year.

There is the legacy of Skinner’s Mudhole...

We have Roboduck ...

Whatever this guy is ...

And, finally we get to the Point ...

We do eventually have to get beyond fan bantering, references to “fuskies” and “mother-duckers,” and the streak. There is a football program residing in the PAC 12 North that is in the process of redefining itself in not so different a manner as the UW did when it began overhauling itself post-Tyrone Willingham.

Despite all of the positive vibes emanating from the Mudhole, the Ducks are a program still reeling from a precipitous, three-year fall from grace. The end of the Mark Helfrich era gave way to a tumultuous dance with Willie Taggart. Once Taggart was done using Oregon to advance his own agenda, the Ducks turned to another East Coaster with a limited track record as a coach but a sterling reputation as both a recruiter and a gentleman.

Mario Cristobal is the new man in charge of the best team that Phil Knight can buy. Does his arrival mark the turning point? Has Oregon found its answer to coaching stability? What is to become of Oregon’s flashy offense? Is the no-defense era finally over? Importantly, do the Ducks have enough firepower to finally compete again for a division title?

I know the answers to all of those questions and I’m about to share them with you. Let’s open the Gekko File on Oregon.

Oregon Offense

Oregon Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
run blocking RB depth QB Justin Herbert WR Jalen Hall (TFr)
overall speed pass protection OL Shane Lemeiux OL Dallas Warmack (Alabama)
QB leadership QB depth TE Jacob Breeland QB Tyler Shough (TFr)

This isn’t your mother’s offense. It’s also not Chip’s. Or Bellotti’s. Or even Mark Helfrich’s.

There is no Royce Freeman. There is no Vernon Adams. There aren’t overwhelmingly athletic receivers or a ridiculously deep crop of 5-star backs. There won’t be any tricks that the PAC hasn’t seen before. There will be a Mariota, but he’s neither a passer nor runner. He’s a blocker.

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon
Justin Herbert is the clear leader of the Oregon Ducks this season.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Oregon’s offense will be different this year than anything you’ve seen in Eugene for some time. Mario Cristobal wants to run a run-first, pro-style offense with elements of spread emulating the trend being adopted around most major conferences. That isn’t to say that the Oregon offense can’t be good; just that it will not be the green explosion of speed and flash that most of us have grown accustomed to.

The success or failure of this offense will obviously center on the arm—and the health—of junior quarterback Justin Herbert.

I know, I know. I can hear you now: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

But the facts here bear repeating. In his six games last year before being lost to a broken collarbone, Herbert connected on 68% of his passes, threw for 1500 yards, hit on 10 TD passes and tossed just three INTs. He won four of the five games that he completed, losing only to ASU, and then only by a couple of points in a shootout.

After his injury, Oregon slid into a funk of Oregon State proportions. The Ducks went 1-4 in the five games that Herbert missed, failing to crack the 14-point barrier in each of those four losses.

So, yeah, Herbert matters and warrants all of the page space I have allocated to him thus far. If he is healthy and available, Herbert is a legit NFL prospect who has both the arm and the accuracy to compensate for the young and inexperienced receiver corps that he has to work with. His presence alone makes Oregon a threat to put 35 or more on the board in any given game.

Without him, not so much.

Backup QB Braxton Burmeister has experience, but probably can’t be trusted to run the offense. True freshman Tyler Shough looks like a great prospect, but one who is likely not ready to win games. It’s Herbert or bust in 2018.

The Oregon receiving corps is going to get a lot of attention in the preseason previews. It is a clear weakness for the team. That said, junior Dillon Mitchell had a bit of a breakout last year and could be poised for a real “top of the conference” breakout if Herbert stays upright all season. Junior Jacob Breeland, who I had tagged as a breakout player last year, returns as an all-conference tight end. Together, these two will form the basis of a one-two punch of speed (Mitchell) and hands (Breeland).

Beyond those two, depth is a question. Sophomore Johnny Johnson is an emerging talent and could certainly take the next step if he was able to get stronger over the offseason. Wake Forest grad transfer Tabari Hines, a smaller receiver, caught seven TDs in the ACC last year. Junior Brenden Schooler is also back as a reliable rotational guy (in addition to being a special teams star). We should probably also acknowledge former 5-star recruit Taj Griffin, who switched to WR last year. Going into his senior year, he still has potential, but has only put up pedestrian numbers.

The rest of the corps is made up of young players we will learn more about this fall. One of the critical issues to watch is that of former 5-star recruit Jalen Hall. The 6’5” athlete has the potential to be a true difference-maker in his first year. But Hall is not currently on campus (at least as far as I can tell) and has been separated from the program since he left spring camp after just a couple of days.

The running back unit will be led by veteran Tony Brooks-James. If it feels to you like he’s been around since the Prefontaine days, you are not alone. This is going to be his final year, but his first as the “main man.” Whether or not he can carry the load remains to be seen. He’s a smaller back with good speed, but without the power of Freeman or the wiggle of LaMichael James.

Oregon is going to need another RB to step up. Sophomore Darrian Felix is the clear backup. Also a smaller back, Felix is more of a slasher than Brooks-James, if not more explosive. Beyond him, Oregon has zero experienced depth. A couple of redshirt freshman and a true freshman are all that is left to work with. One name to watch would be C.J. Verdell. The redshirt frosh exited spring with a great deal of buzz among those who follow the team.

There is clear intrigue with the Oregon offensive line. It could turn out to be a dominating strength or it could plateau as something that is just average. Certainly, covering up for the loss of star LT Tyrell Crosby will be a challenge. The Ducks will lean on the interior of the line to help cover for Crosby’s loss. The middle tandem of guard Shane Lemeiux and center Jake Hanson provide the Ducks with a couple of strong and technically sound linemen. RT Calvin Throckmorton is a third experienced guy who makes up for a lack of athleticism with solid fundamentals and maturity beyond his years.

Cristobal is going to have to lean on a couple of new players to help fill out his line, especially if he sticks to his goal of rotating up to nine players regularly throughout the season. Alabama transfer Dallas Warmack, a mauler who never started at ‘Bama, could emerge as a starter on day 1. He’ll compete with big sophomore Jacob Capra to start opposite Lemeiux at guard. Brady Aiello (6’7”, 312) was hot and cold in a few starts last year but has clear upside and will get a chance again this year to lock down the LT position. There are a couple of other young players who could take that job from him. One guy to watch is true freshman Penei Sewell - a 6’5” 345-lb man-child who has undeniable potential.

It’s difficult to project this Oregon offense once you put all of the pieces together. They are strong (or improving) where it matters: starting QB and interior offensive line. They also have some talented young players coming up through the program who will undoubtedly get an opportunity to bank reps against a not-so-challenging early schedule. But there is also a significant lack of experienced depth in every position group. That makes projecting how Oregon might deal with attrition a precarious proposition.

Oregon Defense

Oregon Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
team speed rush defense LB Troy Dye DL Sione Vea Kaa (Juco)
pass rush and blitzing secondary youth CB Thomas Graham, Jr DB Steve Stephens (TFr)
man coverage tackling DL Jalen Jelks DB Jevon Holland (TFr)

It was only two seasons ago that we were joking about the Ducks defense as the laughingstock of the PAC. Despite being loaded with excellent athletes, that 2016 D was surrendering 41.4 points and over 518 yards of opposing offense per game.

Since then, Jim Leavitt has come to town and initiated a change of culture that is already yielding results. In fact, as I look at the 2018 version of Oregon football, I see the defense as the linchpin of success for the entire program.

We need to start with the linebacking corps, specifically LB Troy Dye. The star linebacker has played both inside and outside in his first two years. No matter what position he plays, the guy simply produces. Last season, he produced about 12% of all of Oregon’s tackles including 13.5 TFLs and 4 sacks. That’s some serious productivity.

Oregon v Utah
Troy Dye is among the most versatile athletes that the PAC 12 has to offer.
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

At 221 lbs, Dye plays with speed. While he is prone to miss a tackle or two in any given game, he can always be counted on the be around the ball. In fact, his four PBUs are indicative of how good he can be when dropping into pass coverage. Combined with fellow OLB/S hybrid Lamar Winston, the Ducks have as versatile and athletic pair of outside backers as there is in the conference.

Depth starts to get challenging after those two. Edge rusher Justin Hollins is an interesting player and one that flashed at times last year. Kaulana Apelu is reliable and, along with Hollins, will provide a veteran presence. Younger players such as Isaac Slade-Matautia and Keith Simms will need to step up and become contributors. True freshman ILB Adrian Jackson seems like a certainty to play, especially if Miami transfer D.J. Johnson fails in his bid to be granted immediate eligibility (which seems likely).

The defensive line is an area of concern, but one that has upside potential. Senior Jalen Jelks returns after a breakout campaign. He represents yet another disruptive option that Oregon can throw at an opponent from the edge. The 6’6” senior had 15 TFLs and 7.5 sacks a year ago to go along with seven PBUs (most of which were swats at the line of scrimmage). He’s a bit of an “all or nothing” kind of guy, but he is clearly the best player that Oregon has up front.

Sophomore NG Jordan Scott will lock down the middle after playing as a true freshman. While conditioning is an issue for the 340-pounder, Scott is still the most important cog in Oregon’s run defense scheme. There really aren’t any experienced inside guys behind him ready to contribute, though redshirt freshman Popo Aumavae is going to be expected to take some snaps.

The rest of the line depth is really anybody’s guess. Sophomore Austin Faoliu played some last year and will be counted on as an edge setter in Leavitt’s 3-4. Juco transfer Sione Vea Kava is an undersized interior guy who will also get plenty of opportunity. 325-lb sophomore DE Gary Baker is another name that people have been buzzing about coming out of the spring. Otherwise, there aren’t any obvious candidates to fill in the depth. It’s going to be a patchwork kind of thing for the Oregon staff to deal with.

Leavitt will undoubtedly try to compensate for his lack of D-line depth in the same way he did at Colorado: focusing on defensive back-heavy schemes that keep opposing offenses in front of them. Fortunately, Leavitt has the athletes to pull this off, even if the players are unproven.

Sophomore Thomas Graham Jr. had an excellent year (3 INTs, 4 PBUs) as a true freshman corner and is already one of the better cover guys in the league. Across from him, senior Ugo Amadi (3 INTs, 8 PBUs) provides a veteran presence, even if he is prone to give up big plays when going for INTs. Sophomore Deommodore Lenoir is the third leg of the corner stool. He was in over his head a bit as a freshman, but is blessed with great talent. All three corners are smaller players who can be exploited by larger receivers or as run defenders. Together they are a great foundation that is more than capable of defending against the big play.

Safety is also young. Brady Breeze, Billy Gibson and Nick Pickett are all sophomores that played as freshmen. Gibson and Pickett both provide some size while Breeze plays with a bit more speed. All three need to mature quickly before Leavitt can really count on them to help control the backside of the defense. If any falter, a pair of talented true freshmen in Javon Holland and Steve Stephens both look ready to play. Amadi is also capable of playing safety and might just find himself there before it is all said and done.

Similar to the offense, experience is an issue with this defense. However, the athletic potential of this Oregon defense is tantalizing, even after adjusting for the issues on the defensive line. The ability to generate a pass rush looks to be there, especially out of the blitz game and the young secondary is loaded with players capable of making plays. If they collectively take a next step, I could see Oregon being one of those defenses that give up a lot of yards but create a ton of extra possessions for their offense. If they can do so, they will become the key to Oregon’s success.

One Breakout Player

OG Dallas Warmack

It isn’t often that I call out an offensive lineman as a breakout player, but Warmack is just too tantalizing to ignore (and, to be clear, I’m assuming D.J. Johnson does not become eligible this season).

Warmack was a high 4* recruit coming out of Atlanta recruited to Alabama by Mario Cristobal himself. He is a tough, big offensive lineman known more for his power than his athleticism.

Oregon’s offensive line room doesn’t have another player quite like him. His presence improves the toughness of those around him, even if his accomplishments to date aren’t as great as some of his teammates’. I like the odds of Warmack coming in and winning the starter RG role this fall.

Projecting the Ducks

If athleticism and youth can be counted for anything, Oregon provides that in spades. If Mario Cristobal is to Oregon a truly stabilizing force after a couple of years of complete disarray, then we should all be looking at the Ducks as a darkhorse candidate to win the North.

In order for them to do so, there are going to have to be a myriad of pieces that come together. Priority number one is to keep their quarterback clean and healthy. The Ducks have nothing that can compensate for any lost time by Herbert, even if it is just for a few games.

Priority number two is to create havoc and extra possessions on defense. Oregon’s D-line is going to need air cover as it can’t be relied upon to keep opposing blockers off linebackers. How Jim Leavitt dials up blitzes and how that young secondary does in forcing turnovers will be key elements to watch.

If those things come together, Oregon’s schedule ought to help them. Thanks to Texas A&M backing out of a home and home, their out-of-conference is probably the easiest slate in the PAC. They benefit from getting their two toughest divisional opponents at home: Stanford and Washington.

But wait, that’s not all!

Oregon’s schedule has some other really nifty features:

  • they host UW at home after their bye week
  • they play both UW and Stanford within the first three weeks of the conference schedule
  • they play only on Saturdays all season long
  • they miss USC (and Colorado) in conference

This really is about the most favorable schedule that any coach could hope for, much less a first-year guy. Should Oregon get through those first three PAC games with two wins, look out. They would be 5-1 overall, ranked, and facing a remaining schedule in which they figure to be the favorite in just about every game. At that point, they would be a significant factor in the North Division race.

But to get there, they at the very least must defeat one of Stanford or Washington. That may not be so easy given that the Huskies and Cardinal have outscored Oregon by a whopping 208-51 over the past two seasons. Oregon’s youth will have to grow up quickly if they are going to have a chance at one or both. Whether or not that happens is the question remaining to be answered.